In the first half of the 19th century, American sailing ships engaged in one of the strangest, and definitely the smelliest sea trades of all time: transporting guano (bird droppings) from Peru's Chincha Islands back around Cape Horn to the US east coast for use as fertilizer. Over 20 million tons of the stuff were dug by Chinese indentured laborers, poured into sacks, barged out to the ships at anchor, and shipped out. The guano was deposited by cormorants and other seabirds over thousands of years, and covered the islands to a depth of 100 feet or more. In most seabird colonies, the valuable nitrates in the guano soon dissolve in rainwater, but because the north-flowing Humboldt current brings cold water from the Antarctic, the islands--like the Peruvian coastal desert--experience almost no rainfall.
In the 1870s, Europeans industrialists perfected an industrial process to mass-produce fertilizer and explosives using saltpeter (sodium nitrate). Coincidentally, the only place in the world where saltpeter could be economically mined was in the Atacama Desert, to the east of the guano islands. This resource quickly became so valuable that saltpeter was called "white gold," and Chile fought a war with Bolivia and Peru in 1879 for control of the nitrate beds. Bolivia lost the war and all access to the sea.
Once the nationality of the desert beds was "settled," the "nitrate trade" began to boom. European mining companies invested in building railways to the coast, and established entire towns on the salt flats with the nearest drinking water hundreds of miles away. In the Atacama desert, years pass with no measurable rainfall, but the managers lived in luxury while 300,000 miners worked in brutally-hard conditions. (In 1907, 18,000 of them marched to Iquique to demand better conditions. Two thousand were shot by police, which marked the beginning of modern social action in Chile. This movement was interrupted by the Pinochet dictatorship, but continues today under Michelle Bachelet--the first woman president in South America.)
Ship owners too had to invest to profit from the boom, for it required ships to follow the toughest sailing route in the world-rounding Cape Horn twice during the round trip. The swift clipper ships that had carried miners to the California Gold Rush were not intended to be bulk carriers. For the nitrate trade, the shipping industry had to develop a new bigger sturdier type of ship, built of iron and later, steel that could make a good speed when heavily-laden with a cargo of saltpeter.
The hull shapes became fuller, the gear stronger, the rigs extended to four and five-masted barks. By this time the Suez Canal had opened, enabling steam ships to halve the time from Asia to Europe. The Chilean run was one of the last deep-water routes on which sailing ships could compete successfully with the steamers, even though they often sailed out in ballast. Reliability was the priority, not speed, because there was never any shortage of wind and the cargo was not time-sensitive or perishable.
The Nitrate King of Avery Hill
Many nitrate ships were built in Britain, but most were delivered to continental owners. However, London was the financial center of the world, and over half of the nitrate trade was controlled by English companies. A tax on the nitrate trade bankrolled the Chilean government for 40 years, and the profits had many men rich. One Englishman named John Thomas North gained a monopoly hold on the desert railroads and became so powerful that he was called the "Nitrate King."
In 1889 he settled into a fine country house at Avery Hill on the edge of SE London where he entertained his business associates with his magnificent Turkish bath, the most impressive in the country. The wing of the house with the baths was destroyed by a German bomb in 1944. (This is particularly interesting to me since it is near my childhood home in Greenwich. I visited the fine conservatory he built, now part of a park, but knew nothing of its history or illustrious founder.)
The Laeisz Line of Hamburg
The most famous of these great shipping houses built on the nitrate trade was the Laeisz Line of Hamburg. In 1854, Fritz Laeisz named his newest ship after his wife, who he called "Pudel" after her curly hair. From this time, all his ships-a total of 76--were given a name beginning with the letter P. So the fleet was soon referred to as the "Flying P Line." It was a sign of the times that the transport of this mundane cargo would become a contest between French and German ship owners, with each nation's maritime reputation at stake. However, the results were spectacular. By the end of the 19th century, iron-ship technology was perfected, and the demand for a half million tons of saltpeter a year led the shipping world to conceive, design and build the biggest sailing ships the world would ever see. They were called "nitrate clippers," and against the odds, several of his ships are still afloat.
By 1890, Frenchman Antoine Dominique Bordes of Bordeaux, the greatest rival to Laeisz, had launched the five-masted 110-meter 6,200 ton France. In response, Laeisz produced the five-masted barque Potosi, 111 meters long, 6000 tons capacity and entirely steel built. Her tallest mast reached 60 meters. Not content with this, Laeisz sent his architects back to their drawing boards to design an even bigger ship. Almost seven years later the 124-meter Preussen was launched in 1902.
The Mighty Preussen and France II
It had a displacement of 11,150 tons and could hold 8,000 tons of nitrate (62,000 sacks). This quantity of nitrate was sufficient to fertilize 40,000 hectares of land or provide gunpowder for a whole German army corps. Its name--Prussia in German--was suggested to Laeisz by none other than Emperor Wilhelm. The Preussen gave Germany a clear right to the title of "largest sailing ship in the world." It was rigged as a five-masted ship and could set 48 sails. But it ruled the seas for only 8 years. In November 1910 an English steamer misjudged the speed of the Preussen and tried to cross its bow-violating every rule of the sea--the Preussen regularly logged a sustained speed of 15 knots. After the collision, the crew dropped two anchors close to the white cliffs of Dover. Three tugs attempted to pull the mighty sailing ship free, but it was blown ashore and wrecked.
In another stroke of one-upmanship, a second German owner built the R.C. Rickmers, 125 meters long in 1906. It was confiscated by Britain in 1914, sent back to sea under a new name, and sunk by a U-boat in 1917. In 1912, the French house of Prentout-Leblond of Rouen outdid them all with the five-masted France II of 146 meters with masts 67 meters high. It found steady employment carrying nickel from New Caledonia, but was wrecked there in 1922. American pilots used it for bombing practice in 1944.
Mighty ships like this were able to sail from Hamburg to Valparaiso in 60-70 days if the weather cooperated. The destination was always "Valparaiso for Orders," and to unload whatever manufactured goods they had brought from Europe. Like San Francisco, Valparaiso was the gateway to a continent. They then proceeded north to Antofagasta or Iquique, where over a hundred ships might be loading at the same time. Iquique had grown prosperous and boasted many fine mansions and an opera house designed by an ambitious Frenchman named Eiffel.
The Laeisz Line's Eight Sisters
In the final years of the sailing ship era, Laeisz chose to go to a handier size of around 100-meters, and built eight similar ships from 1902-26, which were called the Eight Sisters. These included the Passat, Pommern, Peking and Padua. During the Depression, they continued to work in the Australian wheat trade until the outbreak of World War II. Three were surrendered to the Allies as war reparations. The fastest outbound time was 54 days recorded by the Padua on its maiden voyage in 1927. The best return time was 56 days by a Bordes ship the Valentine in 1910. The Valentine was also sunk by a German corsair in 1917 near Easter Island.
During World War I, the French ships continued to sail, supplying the war effort, but the allied blockade prevented the Germans from receiving nitrates. The war might have ended in 1916 if they had not developed an industrial method of synthesizing nitrates using the Haber Process. Further advances by the petro-chemical industry challenged the nitrate trade after World War I, and the Great Depression brought an end to the mining. After World War II, synthetic ammonia fertilizers completely replaced organics.
Two world wars and the Depression left the remaining P liners spread all over the world. In 1939, the Priwall was interned in Valparaiso at the outbreak of the war. In 1941, the Germans presented it to the Chilean Government. Renamed Lautaro, it was used as a cargo-carrying sail-training ship in the local nitrate trade. On February 28 1945, it caught fire during loading and was lost.
The Pamir and the Passat
Two of the eight sisters--the Pamir and the Passat--were re-fitted in the 1950s and resumed carrying cargo with crews of cadets. In 1957, the Pamir was homeward bound with a cargo of barley when it was caught south-west of the Azores by Hurricane Carrie. The crew scrambled to furl all sail as the wind and waves built, finally resorted to cutting the canvas away to save the ship. The Pamir was forced onto its beam ends by the weight of the wind on the spars, and the cargo began to shift.
The sea began to find its way below decks and the ship eventually rolled over and sank. Only five of the crew of eighty were rescued. (This disaster made headlines around the world.) Two months later, the same fate almost befell the Passat, which never sailed again, making this the final curtain for the commercial sailing ship. But this isn't just a nautical history lesson, here's the kicker: four of the P-liners are still afloat!
Three of the ships are preserved as museums: the Passat in Travemunde, Germany, the Pommern in Mariehamn, Sweden, (homeport of the last windjammers of the Erickson fleet), and the Peking in the South Street Seaport, New York. In 1975, the Peking was acquired by the museum and towed to her current home at Pier 16 and the slow process of renovation began. Starting in the summer of 1996, visitors could see Peking's spars and wire rope rigging fully restored to its original condition - the product of a twelve-year long restoration, the most ambitious such project ever undertaken by a museum.
"The four-masted barque Peking represents the final chapter in the evolution of merchant vessels powered only by wind, "says the museum's website. "Launched in Hamburg, Germany in 1911, she was used to carry manufactured goods to South America and to return via Cape Horn with nitrate. In 1932, she was retired and moored in England's Medway River where she served for over 40 years as a boys' school under the name Arethusa." (I sailed past this hulk in 1967 on one of my early dinghy-cruising adventures.)
With a steel hull as long as a football field, and masts as tall as an 18-story building (170'), the 377' Peking is the largest sailing vessel preserved by a museum. In addition, visitors can go below decks to tour restored living quarters, view an exhibition of vintage photos of the ship during her active career, and see the film, "Peking at Sea." This contains authentic footage of one of Peking's voyages around storm-tossed Cape Horn in 1929, filmed and narrated by a young American crewman, Irving Johnson, who later built his own sail-training ships. (Available from the web or nautical book shops.)
Even more remarkable than these amazing escapes from the scrapyard is the fate of the Padua. According to most experts, this was "the last commercial sailing ship ever built." Launched in 1926, it sails on into the 21st century as the Russian cadet ship Kruzenstern, regularly crossing the Atlantic and participating in sail-training festivals. The 115-meter Kruzenstern is owned by the Russian Fishing Ministry, based in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, and frequently engages in crew exchanges with western European sailing ships.
Postscript: Japan built two sail-training ships in the 1980s, the Nippon Maru and the Kaiwo Maru, both 110 meters long. And in a more recent trend, the five-masted cruise ship Royal Clipper inspired by the legendary Preussen is 133 meters/439 feet overall (but with mechanical furling of the 56,000 sq. ft. of sail) and carries 227 passengers in luxury, attended by 106 crew.
Dedication: This story is dedicated to the late Captain Harold Huycke of Edmonds, Wash., one of the last surviving sailing ship officers in the nation. He was one of the first to recognize the need to preserve the history of the last sailing ships on the west coast, and helped begin the restoration of the schooner C.A. Thayer in San Francisco. He was kind enough to review some of my earlier stories on commercial sail for this magazine. Now that I've had more experience, I hope that I've learned to spot my own mistakes...